Between the University and the Museum: The View from the V & A

A few months ago, I attended a symposium organized by my old friend Peter Miller, now Dean of the Bard Graduate Center in New York. It celebrated 20 years of that institution's innovative programme on the history of decorative arts and material culture. The speakers included academics from various fields and curators from museums on both sides of the Atlantic; and at least one of the speakers, Ivan Gaskell, had a foot in both worlds, having recently moved to BGC after two decades at Harvard's Fogg Museum. In a provocative talk entitled 'The Museum of Big Ideas,' Gaskell lamented the loss of intellectual ambition in our leading museums, suggesting that they were now producing mere bits of knowledge, leaving it to universities to develop large-scale projects and innovative methodologies. Gaskell even offered a specific date for this unfortunate change: the day (in 1965) that Michael Baxandall left the Victoria & Albert Museum for the Warburg Institute.


I heard Ivan's words the same week I decided to take up a five-year secondment from the University of York to the Victoria & Albert Museum--further proof (were it needed) that I'm not as clever as Michael Baxandall. But I'm now several months into the job and I'm pleased to report that the situation is not as grim as Gaskell described: I have been struck not only by the quality of the research being carried out at the V&A but by the extent to which it connects rather than divides the world of the museum and the world of the university. In fact, there are signs that the relationships between the two--at least in the UK--are as close as they have ever been and are set to get still closer.


First, there are countless courses that involve collaborations between museums and universities. The V&A is home, as it happens, to the world's oldest postgraduate course in the History of Design, delivered in partnership with the Royal College of Art and taught by staff from both institutions. And the V&A is one of the country's Collaborative Doctoral Partners, with four Collaborative Doctoral Awards each year to give to projects based in/on our collections that involve co-supervision between university scholars and staff at the Museum.


With the advent of the AHRC's new regime for doctoral funding (the so-called Doctoral Training Partnerships [DTP's] that will run for five years from Autumn 2014), aspects of this model have now been extended to all funded PhD researchers since they will all be part of a consortium bringing together multiple universities and non-academic institutions--including museums. The V&A is a named external partner in no fewer than 6 of the country's 18 consortia, which gives us an important (if under-funded!) role to play in training this new generation of postgraduates in public engagement. And the academics who supervise these students will be all too aware of their own need to build such 'Impact' into their work since it now counts for a full 25% of the research assessment exercise (REF 2014) that will rank the research for all departments in the country and distribute government grants accordingly.


Finally, it has always been clear that some ideas are best served by bringing different kinds of expertise to bear on materials, methods and issues; and I can already see that some of the most interesting work being carried out within the Research Department at the V&A involves conversations between academics, curators and conservators. We host a range of visiting fellows from universities around the world, working with the V&A on everything from design cultures in African megacities to the problem of making a better mannequin for the display and interpretation of historic clothing. And we have just received a generous grant from the Andrew C. Mellon Foundation to help us develop a model for a new V&A Research Institute, based within our collections and working at the interface of history, theory and practice.


Big ideas, then, are clearly in the hands of both university scholars and museum professionals, and it is in the interest of both communities (as well as the ideas themselves) for us to work out ways of curating that relationship. If anyone has ideas--big or small--about how to do so, I'd be very happy to hear from you.


Bill Sherman

Head of Research, Victoria & Albert Museum

Professor of Renaissance Studies, University of York